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Not Your Grandfather's Anti-Semitism

It's time to recognize that anti-Semitism has changed from what it used to be, even if it's difficult and painful to talk about.
 
 
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"Anti-Semitism" today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem. The distinction between the two is one of those contemporary issues that most divide Europe from the United States. The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally recognized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere. Thus the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This is a new and disconcerting social challenge and it is far from clear how it should be addressed, beyond the provision of increased police protection. But it is not, as they say, "your grandfather's anti-Semitism."

As seen from the United States, however, Europe – especially "old," or Western, Europe – is in the grip of recidivism: reverting to type, as it were. Last February Rockwell Schnabel (the U.S. ambassador to the European Union) spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe "getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the '30s." In May 2002 George Will wrote in the Washington Post that anti-Semitism among Europeans "has become the second – and final? – phase of the struggle for a 'final solution to the Jewish Question.'" These are not isolated, hysterical instances: Among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again awash in the old anti-Semitism.

The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety. The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion. According to the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, there were 517 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002 (503 in 2003) and 51 in Belgium (twenty-nine in 2003). These ranged from anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops to Molotov cocktails thrown into synagogues in Paris, Lyons and elsewhere.

Measured by everything from graffiti to violent assaults, anti-Semitism has indeed been on the increase in some European countries in recent years; but then it has in America as well. The American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 60 anti-Semitic incidents on U.S. college campuses alone in 1999, 106 in 2002 and 68 in 2003. The ADL recorded 1,559 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2002 (1,557 in 2003), up from 906 in 1986. Even if anti-Semitic aggression in France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe has been grievously underreported, there is no evidence to suggest that it is much more widespread in Europe than in the United States.

As for expressions of anti-Semitic opinion: Evidence from the European Union's Eurobarometer surveys, the French polling service SOFRES and the ADL's own surveys all point in the same direction. There is today in many European countries, as in the United States, a continuing tolerance for mild verbal anti-Semitism, as well as a continuing propensity to believe longstanding stereotypes about Jews: e.g., that they have a disproportionate influence in economic life. But the same polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible. A majority of young people questioned in France in January 2002 believed that we should speak more, not less, about the Holocaust; and nearly nine out of 10 of them agreed that attacks on synagogues were "scandalous." These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the United States.

The one thing on which European and American commentators can agree is that there is a link between hostility to Jews and events in the Middle East. But they draw diametrically opposed conclusions as to the meaning of this link. It is increasingly clear to observers in France, for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate. Moreover, the rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Jews' purported economic power and conspiratorial networks; even blood libels – has been pressed into service by the media in Damascus, Cairo and elsewhere. Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.

But whereas most Europeans believe that the problem originates in the Middle East and must therefore be addressed there, the ADL and many American commentators conclude rather that there is no longer any difference between being "against" Israel and "against" Jews: i.e., that in Europe anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become synonymous. But that is palpably false. Some of the highest levels of pro-Palestinian sympathy in Europe today are recorded in Denmark, a country that also registers as one of the least anti-Semitic by the ADL's own criteria – and the ADL has worked harder than anyone to propagate the image of rampant European anti-Semitism. Another country with a high level of support for the Arabs of Palestine is the Netherlands; yet according to the ADL the Dutch have the lowest anti-Semitic quotient in Europe, and 83 percent of Dutch citizens believe the government should take a role in combating anti-Semitism.

In other words, some of the most widespread pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist views are to be found in countries that have long been – and still are – decidedly philo-Semitic. And there is good evidence that Europeans have considerably more balanced views than Americans on the Israel-Palestine conflict in general. Thus, although Europeans are more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel, they do so only by a ratio of 24:15, according to the ADL. Americans, by contrast, sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, by a ratio of 55:18 (Gallup).

Europeans are also better placed to appreciate that old-style European anti-Semites were, and are, frequently quite sympathetic to Israel – and the worse Israel behaves, the fonder they become. Thus the French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an interview in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in April 2002, expressed his "understanding" of Ariel Sharon's harsh policies ("A war on terror is a brutal thing"), comparable in his opinion to France's anti-terrorist practices in Algeria 40 years earlier, which he thought were no less justified.

The source of American anxiety and confusion is the unstinting support given by the United States to Israel ($3 billion per annum and uncritical backing for all its actions), and the ensuing sentiment among many Americans that since criticism of Israel is close to impermissible, anti-Zionist opinions must be anti-Semitic in origin. Indeed, the gap separating Europeans from Americans on the question of Israel and the Palestinians is one of the biggest impediments to transatlantic understanding today.

This gulf is well illustrated in a recent essay by Omer Bartov, a distinguished professor of European history at Brown University. In a lengthy discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism published last February in The New Republic, Bartov argued that just as the world failed to take Hitler at his word in the 1930s, so we are underestimating or even ignoring the revival, today, of similarly virulent anti-Semitism, whose consequences might prove comparably devastating. The message of the essay was that if anti-Zionism is a camouflage for anti-Semitism (and Bartov thinks it often is), then we should call it by its real name and combat it as such. In Europe especially it has become politically correct, Bartov suggests, to ignore – or play down – expressions of anti-Semitic opinion, particularly in the academic community. The time has come, he concludes, to call a spade a spade.

Bartov himself does not make the mistake of tarring any and all criticism of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism. But by relentlessly drawing comparisons and analogies between contemporary anti-Zionism and the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the 1930s, he ends up conflating past and present. If we were wrong 70 years ago not to take Hitler's exterminationist intentions seriously, he suggests, we are just as wrong to make any allowance for Hamas, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (who said at a 2003 conference that "Jews rule this world by proxy"), renegade German politicians and novelists, misguided American academics, the former French ambassador to Britain (who several years ago referred to Israel as "that shitty little country") and no doubt countless others.

In Bartov's account, people might well have good reasons to criticize the policies of the Israeli government (Bartov himself is no admirer of Ariel Sharon). But those are not the reasons many of them express such criticisms. It is the hatred of Jews – Jews in Israel, Jews in Europe, Jews everywhere and always – that accounts for the virulence of the critique. The trouble with this account of the matter is, as I suggested above, that it does indeed make the relevant link between the Middle East and modern anti-Semitism, but inverts the causality.

It is the policies of Israeli governments, especially in the past two decades, that have provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and elsewhere. This may seem absurd, but there is a certain tragic logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The latter offers a right of citizenship to Jews anywhere in the world. Israel is not the state of all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of (all) Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against ... Jews.

Thus Israel itself has made a significant contribution to the resurgence of the anti-Semitism Bartov and others describe. This is an outcome with which many Israeli politicians are far from unhappy: It retroactively justifies their own bad behavior and contributes, as they proudly assert, to a rise in the number of European Jews leaving for Israel. At a time when many Israelis are obsessed with the prospect of becoming a minority in their own enlarged territory, the inflow of Jews fleeing real or imagined persecution is an occasion for self-congratulation.

Bartov concedes a distinction between "soft-core" and "hard-core" anti-Semitism. However, he still insists that there is a single slippery slope leading from misguided academics and intellectuals to pathological murderers. Historically this may be true. But today the implications of such a conflation of different levels of criticism and prejudice are dangerously censorious. No doubt some of Israel's strongest critics do display anti-Semitic propensities. But that doesn't disqualify anti-Zionism as ipso facto anti-Semitic: As Arthur Koestler observed back in 1948, you can't help people being right for the wrong reasons. If those of us who think Israel is behaving shamefully follow Bartov's reasoning, we'll be constrained to silence for fear of being accused of complicity in anti-Semitism ourselves.

What, then, is to be done? Those of us who take seriously the problem of anti-Semitism – but who utterly reject the suggestion that we ourselves are in danger of sympathizing with anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism – must begin by constructing and defending a firewall between the two. Israel does not speak for Jews; but Israel's claim to speak for Jews everywhere is the chief reason that anti-Israel sentiments are transposed into Judeophobia. Jews and others must learn to shed inhibitions and criticize Israel's policies and actions just as they would those of any other established state.

It may be easier for Jews to take their distance from Israel's illegal acts and misguided calculations than it is for non-Jews – the latter are always vulnerable to moral blackmail by Zionists, especially in countries with anti-Semitic pasts. But we shall never be able to think straight about anti-Semitism until this firewall is in place. Once Germans, French and others can comfortably condemn Israel without an uneasy conscience, and can look their Muslim fellow citizens in the face, it will be possible to deal with the real problem. For indeed there is a problem. This is an arena in which legitimate responses shade all too readily into familiar prejudices.

Thus, to take one notorious example: Critics of the foreign policy of the Bush administration who claim that it is directed in many cases by men with close ties to Israel are not mistaken. Contemporary U.S. foreign policy is in certain respects mortgaged to Israel. Several very senior Bush appointees spent the 1990s advising politicians of the Israeli far right. But that does not mean that "Jewish interests" run the American government, as some European and many Arab commentators have inferred and suggested. To say that Israel and its lobbyists have an excessive and disastrous influence on the policies of the world's superpower is a statement of fact. But to say that "the Jews" control America for their own ends is to espouse anti-Semitism.

Moreover, the slippage between criticism of America and dislike for Jews long antedates the founding of the state of Israel. "Anti-Americanism" and anti-Semitism have been closely interwoven at least since the 1920s, when European intellectuals looked with nervous distaste across the Atlantic and saw a rootless, predatory, commercial society, the incarnation of cosmopolitan modernity, threatening the continuity and distinctiveness of their own national cultures. Many critics of America, in Germany or France or Russia, were all too quick to identify the shifting, unfamiliar contours of an Americanizing world with the essential traits of a homeless Jewry. The link with Israel is new, but the image of "Jewish" America is an old story and a troubling one.

Or, to take an even more sensitive instance: The Shoah is frequently exploited in America and Israel to deflect and forbid any criticism of Israel. Indeed, the Holocaust of Europe's Jews is nowadays exploited thrice over: It gives American Jews in particular a unique, retrospective "victim identity"; it allows Israel to trump any other nation's sufferings (and justify its own excesses) with the claim that the Jewish catastrophe was unique and incomparable; and (in contradiction to the first two) it is adduced as an all-purpose metaphor for evil – anywhere, everywhere and always – and taught to schoolchildren all over America and Europe without any reference to context or cause.

This modern instrumentalization of the Holocaust for political advantage is ethically disreputable and politically imprudent. To deplore this abuse of other people's sufferings seems to me an important civic duty. But to conclude that "the Jews" have made too much of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945, or that it is now time to move on – that edges us much closer to anti-Semitism.

This brings us to a related and equally sensitive issue. Among European intellectuals and artists – in Germany, for example – anti-Semitism occasionally surfaces in discussions of how to speak openly about the unmanaged past. Why, people ask, after all these years should we not speak of the burning of Germany's cities, or the sinking of refugee boats, or even the uncomfortable fact that life in Hitler's Germany – for Germans – was far from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because of what Germany did to the Jews? But we've spoken of this for decades – the Federal Republic is one of the most philo-Semitic nations in the world; for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? Will the Jews never just forgive us and let everyone move on? As this last question suggests, what begins as the search for historical honesty risks ending perilously close to resentment at "the Jews."

In formerly communist countries one frequently encounters resentment and perplexity, among well-informed and educated people, at the West's failure to understand the enormity of the crimes of communism. "Why won't you compare Nazism to communism?" they ask. There are a number of answers that one might offer, but the question is not unreasonable, especially when posed by communism's victims. And it must be addressed openly, lest the citizens of eastern Europe tell themselves what a number of intellectuals in Romania, Hungary and elsewhere have already openly suggested: that the reason we in the West reject the comparison is that Nazism persecuted Jews above all, and it is Jews who set the international agenda for remorse, retribution and reparation. Once again, anti-Semitism emerges as the bastard child of otherwise reasonable political preoccupations.

There is no simple answer to the dilemmas raised by such issues. Somehow we need to juggle the need to speak honestly and openly about present politics and past sufferings without either imposing silences or legitimizing the resurrection of prejudices. In my view it is incumbent upon Jews in particular – Jewish writers, Jewish intellectuals, Jewish scholars – to address these contested and disconcerting problems. Because Jewish critics of Israel are less vulnerable to moral blackmail from Israel's defenders, they should be in the forefront of public discussion of the Middle East, in America and Europe alike.

Similarly, Jewish commentators need to take the lead in opening up difficult and uncomfortable conversations about the past – and the present – in Europe. Public discussion in Germany especially, but elsewhere too, is often trapped between politically correct evasions and resentful "taboo-breaking." The majority's fear of offending Jewish sensibilities arouses a growing minority's desire to do just that. We can never "normalize" the European history of anti-Semitism, nor should we. But if the charge of "anti-Semitism" remains suspended like Damocles' sword across the European public space – as it is today across much of America – we shall all fall silent. And between controversial debate and fearful silence we would be well advised to choose the former. Silence is always a mistake.